During the month of December, Buddy will highlight, the Twelve Days of Fearlessness. Whether it is getting up the nerve to lace up your old ice skates with your five-year-old or conquering a halfpipe like your teenage days, fearlessness is not just situational for all- for some, it is a way of life.
Not long ago, unsuspecting Richmonders had no idea what loomed a short walk through the woods down the “sketchy staircase.” After traversing the perilous path, adventure seekers found the infamous Manchester Wall tucked between the James and woods.
Now, it is more accessible for climbers and onlookers alike. Just over the T-Pott Bridge (T. Tyler Potterfield Memorial Bridge) is one of Central Virginia’s premier climbing spots- this outdoor gym is a playground to experts and novices alike. Once part of the Richmond and Petersburg Railroad Bridge, the tracks spanned the James river during much of the 19th century. Now, the sixty-foot granite rock face attracts climbing enthusiasts, young and old.
Nearly three years ago, I spent a Saturday at the wall. What I learned that day stuck with me. For starters, you need to put your fears aside and clip in. What the Wall will teach is worth the risk….
It is April 2016. The sun is beaming. I make my way down a rickety staircase to a group of climbers laughing and chatting. I spot a quiet, brown-haired girl gazing up at a muscular, lean woman who is halfway up the wall. Nine-year-old, Sienna Haase, is just a spectator today, but often times she sports her pink harness and matching chalk bag. Her mother, Alicia Haase, is a middle school teacher and intermediate sport climber. Haase encourages her children to climb and push their limits on the wall. Sienna watches her mother’s every move as she is belayed by friend and climber, Boren Eam.
To her left, Sienna’s twelve-year-old brother, Derrick, climbs a 5.8. Sienna looks on, “When you get to the top, you get to see all of Richmond; it’s beautiful. My mom always goes to the top, because she says if she doesn’t- she can’t say she did (made it).”
Each route is graded on a degree of difficulty. Manchester offers a variety of beginner and advanced routes.
Like her adventurous mother, Sienna has climbed Manchester many times as well as other outdoor routes at the New River Valley Gorge. Today, her brother follows in his mother’s footsteps — literally. He finds his footholds and nearly reaches the top. Derrick is part of a climbing program at Peak- an indoor climbing gym located in Chesterfield and Richmond, VA. His mother describes how climbing allows kids to build confidence, stamina, and a respect for nature.
“It affords the opportunity to learn a life skill that could potentially take them around the world to see new places and meet interesting people,” Haase explains. “Climbing is a phenomenal mental and physical sport that is best served outdoors in the fresh air overlooking a beautiful city…climbing has changed my life.”
Nearby, Ana Mills, a neuropsychologist at VCU Medical Center and outdoor enthusiast climbs the center of the main wall. Mills first climbed at Seneca Rock in West Virginia. She steadily ascends Manchester with poise reaching the top and then rappels down with grace and ease. She mirrors a dancer.
To her right, expert climber, Craig Berkley, leaps across the wall with his climbing partner. With speed and form, it is evident- even to the untrained eye- that Berkley knows these routes by heart. In fact, it is Berkley that climbers can thank for having the Manchester Wall to climb.
In the mid-90s, Berkley along with fellow climbers, Jamie McGraff and Greg Elliott, set twelve-thirteen routes, “It was important to us to place gear and not deface the rocks. There were less cracks. We hand drilled each bolt,” Berkley explains.
On adjacent pillars, first timer to Manchester, Rebecca Vareed, a VCU student and part of the Outdoor Adventure Program, is cheered on by her friends as she lead climbs and rappels back down the pillar. She turns to the girls with a broad smile, “That was badass,” she exclaims and preps to head back up the wall again.
Soon, complete strangers gather around a grill set up by some of the climbers. The Red Hot Chili Peppers, Scar Tissue, booms from a portable radio. Climbers refuel on burgers and dogs and share stories about gear. It’s a tight-knit community- literally. Haase and Vareed laugh when they spot each other. Vareed, who works at REI, sold Haase her climbing shoes. Over an impromptu lunch, climbers share stories and strategies as their dogs lap water from the nearby James. One climber laughs, “Better to climb rocks than smoke them. Climbing allows for an even playing field when it comes to gender. It’s the only sport where a small girl can beat a grown, muscle head.”
Haase replies, “I think climbing at Manchester mimics real mountains more than climbing in the gym. I love being outdoors overlooking the Richmond skyline and The James River. There’s really nothing like climbing for me. I look at every route like it’s a giant puzzle, and it’s extremely rewarding when I make it to the top!! There’s no greater feeling than knowing you just accomplished something that looked impossible from the ground. It has made me believe in myself after going through some difficult times, and it is a huge confidence builder! I can’t wait to plan my next adventure!”
Less than one year later, Mills, Haase, and Eam find themselves climbing walls in Cambodia and Thailand. It is safe to say, making the trek to the Manchester Wall is a must-do for RVA lovers. This historic granite is definitely not to be taken for granted by locals or visitors. Whether you are in fourth grade or a doctor, the Wall has something to offer everyone, all you need is a little grit.
Written by Meg Sheriff